What's a three-letter word for ejaculate? Whether 58 down in the May 28 edition of the New York Times crossword is meant as a noun or a verb is unclear, but I'm hoping it has nothing to do with the clue for 37 down, "It runs down the leg." Ewww. I knew the Times' Sunday crossword had the reputation of being the Mt. Everest of word puzzles, but I never knew it was so dirty. As it happens, though, Will Shortz is a smarty-pants and a smart-ass: The answer, wincingly appropriate to any normal human being trying to finish one of these suckers, is "cry."
Still, the mustachioed Times crossword editor seems remarkably un-smart-assy in Patrick Creadon's entertaining new doc, Wordplay. He's more of a likable nerd with Asperger’s syndrome–ish tendencies, as are the featured puzzle aficionados, who worship his work with the fervent zeal accorded to fundamentalist doctrine. Actually, for the celeb followers (who include Bill Clinton and Ken Burns), Shortz's crossword puzzles aren't much more than welcome diversions. But for the rest of his impassioned converts, the born-again religious metaphor isn't much of a stretch. Most, after all, seem pretty unexceptional — until you plunk them down in front of a puzzle and they channel the word like possessed Holy Rollers with Paper Mates.
Wordplay follows a handful of these nerdlinger types as they compete in the 28th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Contestants include city girl Ellen Ripstein, a mousy former champion who twirls a mean baton and looks a bit like a middle-aged Sofia Coppola; Al Sanders, a paunchy, middle-American perpetual runner-up; and young Tyler Hinman, a cocky, small-town frat boy.
The contest is surprisingly intense. Still, what elevates Wordplay beyond Spellbound: The AARP Years is not the competition, but the community born of it. "It's like finding a lost tribe," says musician Jon Delfin, who started competing in 1985. Usually his kind feel judged for their peculiar talent, but for one weekend a year, they wander out of social purgatory to bask in the glow of the promised land and its balding godhead. The only thing is, for this crew Valhalla just happens to be the Stamford, Conn., Marriott. (Michelle Devereaux)
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